Future of the Royal Air Force

The planning for the future of the Royal Air Force involves supporting ongoing British military operations,[1] the introduction of new aircraft types,[2] greater focus on network enabled capability and increasing interoperability with members of NATO.[1]

F-35 Lightning II

A Royal Air Force F-35B in flight.
Main article: F-35 Lightning II

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, fifth generation multirole fighters under development to perform ground attack, reconnaissance, and air defence missions with stealth capability. It was selected for the UK's Joint Combat Aircraft requirement in 2001 and is expected to enter service with the Royal Navy and the RAF from around 2020, replacing the existing Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR9 fleets (the latter already having been retired in late 2010), and operating from the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.[3] It will be the main component of the RAF's manned strike capability, and marks the return of a carrier-borne strike capability for the Fleet Air Arm for the first time in nearly a decade.

The version initially selected was the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35, known as the F-35B. However, on 19 October 2010, David Cameron announced that the UK would change their order to the F-35C CATOBAR carrier variant for both the RAF and Navy. The F-35C variant features larger wings with folding wingtips and larger wing and tail control surfaces for improved low-speed control. This gives it a greater range and the ability to carry a larger and more diverse payload than the F-35B.[4]

In May 2012, it was announced that the government had reverted to the previous plan to operate the Short Take Off Vertical Landing F-35B, due to rising estimated shipbuilding costs associated with the CATOBAR variant F-35C, and an earlier estimated in-service date for the F-35B.[5]

The delivery of the UK's first F-35B was made on the 19 July 2012 at Fort Worth, Texas, for flight trials by the RAF and Royal Navy.[6]

In 2015, the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed a planned order of 138 F-35s, with 24 of them to be available for carrier duties by 2023.[7][8]

Current & Future Units:

Additionally, 809 Naval Air Squadron and another as-yet unnamed Fleet Air Arm squadron, both to be based at RAF Marham, will also operate the F-35.


Main article: Eurofighter Typhoon

It was announced in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review that the Royal Air Force would retain its Tranche 1 Typhoons and use them to stand up an additional two squadrons. It was also announced that the aircraft would remain in service until 2040, ten years longer than previously planned.[8] The Government also promised to invest further in Typhoon air-to-ground capabilities and in a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, as well as completing integration of the Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles with the Typhoon.

RAF Typhoon

Frontline Units

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


A mockup of BAE Mantis.

The Protector programme (formerly known as Scavenger) will supply a next-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV to replace the current General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs.[10]

In June 2011, it was announced that BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation would collaborate on an aircraft called Telemos.[11] It was suggested that BAE Systems would supply the airframe and guidance based on BAE Mantis, with a payload from Thales and integration by Dassault.[12] However, the project was effectively abandoned in 2012 after Dassault pursued a collaboration with EADS Cassidian and Alenia Aermacchi instead.[13]

In October 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the purchase of more than 20 Protector UAVs which would be delivered by the end of the decade.[14][15] This was later confirmed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. The exact platform selected for Protector was not disclosed, but in February 2016, Christopher Ames of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems claimed that it would be a Certifiable Predator B.[16] Air Commodore Peter Grinsted of the Ministry of Defence later confirmed that it would be an enhanced variant of Predator B, designed to be compatible with NATO airworthiness standards. He confirmed that it will also come with the extended wing and fuel tanks of the ER (Extended Range) version, giving an increased endurance of over 40 hours.[17] In April 2016, the Ministry of Defence confirmed it would seek to acquire the Certifiable Predator B through a Foreign Military Sales contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.[18][19]

According to MBDA, the Royal Air Force intends to arm the aircraft with Brimstone missiles.[20]

Future Combat Air System (FCAS)

A model of BAE Taranis.

The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) (also known as the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS)) aims to deliver an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) by 2030.[21] FCAS will be built in cooperation with France, utilizing technology from the BAE Taranis and Dassault nEUROn technology demonstrators.[21] Development of full-scale prototypes is expected to begin by 2017.[22] In the Royal Air Force, FCAS will be expected to operate alongside Typhoons and F-35 Lightning IIs.[23]

As a UCAV, FCAS will utilize stealth technology to reduce its radar cross-section (its radar signature is reportedly the size of a dragonfly).[24] It will feature a high degree of autonomy, enabling it to complete a large part of its missions without human control.[24] It will have a 16-meter (50 ft) wingspan and two internal weapon bays.[24]

According to Bernard Gray of the Ministry of Defence, technology from FCAS could also be incorporated onto a manned platform.[21] Other officials have also insisted that a manned option for FCAS has not been ruled out.[25] According to a House of Commons Defence Select Committee (DSC) report, a new "clean-sheet" manned fighter design has not been ruled out, nor has the option to buy further or upgrade existing aircraft.[26]


Main article: Qinetiq Zephyr

Leading up to the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that "British-designed unmanned aircraft will be constructed to fly at the very edge of the earth’s atmosphere and allow us to observe our adversaries for weeks on end, providing critical intelligence for our forces."[27] Gareth Jennings of IHS Jane's identified this as the solar-powered Qinetiq Zephyr.[28] The Ministry of Defence confirmed an initial order for two Zephyr aircraft in February 2016 for demonstration purposes.[29] In August 2016, the MOD confirmed a purchase of a third Zephyr.[30]

Transport and air-to-air refuelling


The first A400M on final approach, during its fourth flight on 15 January 2010.
Main article: Airbus A400M Atlas

Future transport capability will rely on the Airbus A400M Atlas, of which 22 are to be used to replace the Hercules C1/C3 (C-130K) aircraft.[3]

The Airbus A400M will increase the airlift capacity and range compared with the aircraft it was originally set to replace, the older versions of the Hercules and Transall. Cargo capacity is expected to double over existing aircraft, both in payload and volume, and range is increased substantially as well. The cargo box is 17.71 m long excluding ramp, 4.00 m wide, and 3.85 m high. The height is 4.00 m aft of the wing and the ramp is 5.40 m long. The Airbus A400M will operate in many configurations including cargo transport, troop transport, Medical evacuation, and electronic surveillance. The aircraft is intended for use on short, soft landing strips and for long-range, cargo transport flights.[31]

Current & Future Units


RAF C130J-30s, based at RAF Brize Norton

Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 included a reprieve for some of the Hercules fleet, with the Government announcing "We will upgrade and extend the life of our C130J aircraft, allowing them to support a range of operations until 2030".[8] It had been reported that the Army's senior leadership was unhappy with the retirement of the Hercules aircraft, due to uncertainty regarding the A400M's and C-17's effectiveness in some tactical roles.[33] The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review envisioned a fleet of 14 C130J aircraft (the variant of which was not explicitly made clear).[8]


Fourteen Voyager air-to-air refuelling aircraft will be in service by 2025, with one fitted for transport of the Prime Minister, senior cabinet officials and the Royal Family.[34][8]

Signals Intelligence

Air Seeker

The first Royal Air Force RC-135W arrives at RAF Waddington in November 2013.
Main article: Boeing RC-135

A total of three Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft have been ordered to replace the Nimrod R1, which was retired in 2011.[35] These became known as Air Seeker when they entered RAF service in 2014.[36] The aircraft is an extensively modified Boeing C-135 Stratolifter with onboard sensors which enable the crew to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The crew can then forward information in a variety of formats to a wide range of consumers via the onboard secure communications suite.

Sentinel R1

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review announced that the Sentinel R1 would remain in service "until the next decade" with the intention that it be withdrawn by 2025.[37]

Shadow R1

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review stated that the Shadow R1 would remain in service until "at least" 2030. An additional two aircraft would also be procured for a total of eight in service by 2025.[8]


In 2004, the Royal Air Force initiated Project DABINETT, an integrated architecture to collect, process and disseminate intelligence from manned and unmanned aircraft such as Sentinel and Watchkeeper. Initial Gate was approved in January 2008; when assessment phase contracts were awarded to BAe INSYTE and Lockheed Martin UK. In February 2010, it had been renamed Project SOLOMON. Phase I concentrates on disseminating information over the UK Defence Information Infrastructure networks, with Initial Operating Capability in March 2012 and Full Operating Capability in March 2015.[38]

Maritime Patrol


Main article: Boeing P-8 Poseidon
The Royal Air Force plans to acquire 9 P-8 Poseidon aircraft.

One of the most anticipated announcements in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 was the purchase of a maritime patrol aircraft to replace the capability lost after the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 in 2010. The review announced that the UK planned to acquire 9 Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft, which would be based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland by 2025.[8] The aircraft will include an "overland surveillance capability", which could eventually replace the surveillance capability lost by the retirement of the Sentinel R1 in 2025. The RAF plans to operate its P-8s with U.S. weapons initially, with a possible transition onto British weapons in the future.[39]



An RAF Chinook HC2 in 2009.

On 16 December 2009, the Ministry of Defence announced that 22 Chinook helicopters would be added to the current Chinook fleet, bringing the total number in service to 70 by 2013. However, in 2010, the order was reduced to 14.[3] The new aircraft will enter service from late 2014 onwards. In 2006, the retirement dates for the HC2 and HC2A fleets were scheduled for 2015 and 2025, respectively, however if planned upgrades were made both types could expect to be flying until 2040.[40][41]


A total of 24 Puma HC1's will be upgraded to HC2 standard to prolong their lives until 2025.[8]


The training provided to Royal Air Force aircrew is evolving, through a shift towards contractor-provided training, and increasing use of simulators to supplement flying time. The aircraft currently in use are approaching the end of their working lives. In order to fund new aircraft, the training system is being outsourced to the private sector, over a 25-year Private Finance Initiative valued at £6 billion. The consortium running the new UK Military Flying Training System is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Babcock International, is known as Ascent Flight Training. The current generation training aircraft will be replaced over the next few years:

Training Phase Current Replacement Base
Elementary Flying Training Tutor T.1 Grob G 120TP RAF Cranwell, RAF Wittering
Basic Fast Jet Training Tucano T.1 Beechcraft T-6 Texan II RAF Linton-on-Ouse
Advanced Fast Jet Training Hawk T.1/T.2 Hawk T.2 RAF Valley
Multi-Engine Training Beechcraft King Air Embraer Phenom 100 RAF Cranwell

The current helicopter training system is set to be replaced in the same way, with the MOD selecting a bidder in 2016 to be operational by 2018.



See also


  1. 1 2 "Strategy". Royal Air Force. 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  2. "Future Capability". Royal Air Force. 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 Wall, Robert."U.K. Cuts Aircraft Fleets in Strategic Review". Aviation Week, 19 October 2010.
  4. Wilson, Amy (10 November 2010). "Babcock says Aircraft carrier changes will add up to £800m to taxpayer bill". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  5. "U.K. Makes F-35 U-Turn to Cut Costs, Narrow Carrier-Defense Gap." Bloomberg News, 10 May 2012.
  6. "UK TAKES DELIVERY OF FIRST F-35 LIGHTNING II JET". BAE Systems Newsroom. 19 July 2012.
  7. "Osborne: UK to speed up aircraft carrier jet purchase". BBC News. 22 November 2015. Retrieved 22 November 2015.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom" (PDF). gov.uk. Her Majesty's Government. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
  9. "UK Planning four front-line F-35 Squadrons". Aviationweek. 20 May 2016.
  10. Putrich, Gayle (22 July 2010). "FARNBOROUGH: General Atomics says Avenger ready for RAF". Farnborough.
  11. Wall, Robert (8 June 2011). "BAE Systems, Dassault Name Joint UAV Effort". Aviation Week.
  12. Vandewalle, Yves; VIOLLET, Jean-Claude. "Rapport d'information déposé en application de l'article 145 du Règlement par la Commission de la Défense Nationale et des Forces Armées sur les drones". Assemblée Nationale. p. 57.
  13. "France and Britain Make Progress with Two Out of Three UAVs". AINonline. 27 July 2012. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  14. "New investment in counter terrorism for UK Armed Forces". Ministry of Defence. 4 October 2015. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  15. "David Cameron promises to 'beef up' the SAS to take the fight to Isil". Telegraph. 3 October 2015. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  16. "General Atomics Eyes Asia Pacific Region for Popular Predator B". AIN Online. 13 February 2016. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  17. "Protector = Scavenger". Royal Aeronautical Society. 9 October 2016. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  18. "Justification of the decision of the procurer to award the contract without the prior publication of a contract notice". HM Government. 24 April 2016. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  19. "UK To Buy "Certifiable Predator B"". Aerossurance. 25 April 2016. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  20. "Brimstone Reaper integration still in the pipeline". Flightglobal. 18 March 2016. Retrieved 21 March 2016.
  21. 1 2 3 "ANALYSIS: Anglo-French FCAS feasibility study kicks off". Flightglobal. 6 November 2014. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  22. "New $2.2 billion Anglo-French FCAS phase announced". Flightglobal. 8 March 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  23. "BAE Says Drone Warplanes to Aid Fighter Pilots, Not Replace Them". Bloomberg Technology. 10 June 2016. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  24. 1 2 3 "Meet the Drone That Carries Out the Airstrikes Before the Airstrikes". VICE. 19 June 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  25. "Anglo-French FCAS May Not Be Unmanned". AIN. 12 November 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  26. "UK Sets Out post-2030 Combat Aviation Force Plans". UAS Vision. 19 June 2016. Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  27. "David Cameron: We will defeat terrorism, and the poisonous ideology that fuels it". Telegraph. 22 November 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  28. "SDSR 2015: UK prime minister confirms plans to field 'near space' UAV, likely Zephyr". IHS Jane's. 23 November 2016. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  29. "MoD to buy high-flying solar planes". BBC News. 2 February 2016. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  30. "MOD buys third record-breaking UAV". UK MOD. 17 August 2016. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
  31. "A400M Capabilities". Airbus Military. Retrieved 15 May 2010.
  32. http://www.raf.mod.uk/organisation/24squadron.cfm
  33. Giannangeli, Marco. "SAS fight to keep Hercules planes". Express.co.uk. The Daily Express. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
  34. "David Cameron to get own plane for official trips". BBC News. 25 November 2015. Retrieved 19 November 2015.
  35. "Nimrod R1 retires from service". Equipment and Logistics. Ministry of Defence. 7 July 2011. Retrieved 29 June 2012.
  36. Hoyle, Craig (14 January 2011). "RAF personnel start Rivet Joint training". Flight International. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
  37. "HomeNewsCentury Of Sorties For Raf Airseeker And Sentinel". Royal Air Force. 25 November 2015. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
  38. "The contribution of ISTAR to operations: Government response to the Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2009–10" (pdf). UK Parliament. 27 July 2010.
  39. "US, UK Still Discussing Anti-Sub Gap Options". Defense News. 19 April 2016. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  40. Hoyle, Craig (12 February 2006). "Boeing lifts massive UK Chinook deal". Flight International.
  41. "RAF Aircraft: Chinook HC2". armedforces.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-03-29.
  42. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/raf-typhoons-to-get-weapons-upgrade
  43. http://www.raf.mod.uk/newsweather/index.cfm?storyid=C68ABE90-1143-EC82-2EA56BEB107606D1
  44. "UK Backs MBDA on Mini-Cruise Missile Requirement". Defense News. 18 March 2016. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  45. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/mod-orders-uk-designed-mini-missile-decoy-for-raf
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